Wearable computing is here already: How hi-tech got under our skin

George Osborne is a recent convert. Next, like retina displays, it will soon be implanted into our bodies

The revelation that George Osborne has begun using Jawbone Up, the activity-tracking wristband that monitors how much you move during the day and whether you sleep enough at night, caused some mirth in Westminster last week.

But the Chancellor isn’t the only one joining in the wearable technology trend. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, is giving Up wristbands to its 11,000 employees, and tech industry observers foresee a time when the activity tracker is issued to new employees with their laptop and smartphone.

While wearable computing isn’t new, this year it’s everywhere. Activity trackers like Jawbone Up and Fitbit Flex are increasingly prominent. Google Glass, the computer-enhanced eyewear with in-built camera, speaker and internet connectivity has a growing profile. And smartwatches, such as the Pebble, are moving smartphone features to a wristwatch.

Juniper research says that 15 million wearable computing gadgets will be sold this year and expects that to increase to 70 million by 2017. If Apple’s rumoured iWatch appears, then expect growth to hasten.

Wristbands, watches and glasses are just the beginning. Next-generation wearables will be part of the fabric of our clothes – literally. London-based CuteCircuit has developed a mobile phone dress with an antenna in the seam and the SIM card in the label. Artist and designer Dominic Wilcox’s No Place Like Home shoes use GPS and LED lights to give directions.

These are concepts, not commercial products, but compared with what’s coming, they seem crude. Research published in 2011 by a team of scientists from Italy, France and the US explored the possibilities of using conductive thread – cotton coated in nanoparticles and polymers – to form transistors and circuits. Instead of wearing a dress with a computer built-in, your dress will be the computer.

Sabine Seymour, founder of Moondial, an agency that develops and consults on wearables, says: “We forget that we constantly wear a textile on our body. If we use that assumption that a consumer is covered everyday, we have a fantastic surface where we can embed a lot of functionality.”

She foresees smart clothes that change colour, regulate our temperature, charge the gadgets we carry and don’t need to be washed. Wearable computers and smart clothes are fine, but what about simply having the technology surgically implanted in your body? Instead of glasses, imagine if your retina had a display built-in. Consider an activity tracker implanted in your foot, or a tooth-filling sensor that vibrates when you have a message. Embedded technology has been used in medicine for decades. Pacemakers and cochlear implants were first developed in the 1960s.

More recently, work has begun on sensors that can be swallowed to monitor the effect of medical treatment and disposable monitoring patches that can be attached to the body. There is a difference between medical implants, which are often the best way to deal with a health problem, and lifestyle implants – but there’s no reason to think there won’t be demand for the latter. Many people already modify their bodies with tattoos, piercings and cosmetic surgery.

Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, has been experimenting on himself for more than a decade. In 1998, he had a silicon chip implanted in his arm that controlled the door and the lights in his laboratory. A second experiment, four years later, let him remotely control a prosthetic hand.

This year, Rich Lee, a 34-year-old American, had magnets implanted in the tragus – the small protuberance in front of the ear canal – that act as speakers when combined with a coil necklace. In 2011, Trevor Prideaux, 50, had a smartphone embedded in his prosthetic arm, making it easier to use the device with only one hand.

It will be some time before such modifications become mainstream, particularly because nobody knows what the long-term health effects of implants might be. On a practical level, returning a broken smartphone is straightforward; “returning” a broken implant would be trickier.

For now, there are other concerns about wearable technology. The US anti-Google Glass campaign, Stop The Cyborgs, provides downloadable stickers reading: “No surveillance devices”. Some critics warn that Google Glass facial recognition software could track people without their knowledge. Google currently doesn’t permit such software but a determined developer could get around that.

Data security is a potential worry, too. What happens to all that information about your exercise and sleep habits? What if your health data was sold to a third party, such as an insurance company? Could an employer discriminate against a worker with an “unhealthy” lifestyle?

Finally, there’s the problem of compulsion. Dr Larry Rosen, a professor at California State University and an expert in the psychology of technology, says: “In our studies, the typical teen and young adult checks his or her smartphone every 15 minutes or less and if they can’t check as often as they like they get anxious. This anxiety then drives the need to check in to reduce the anxiety which then begins to build again.” The more immediate nature of wearable technology could make this problem worse, he says.

But these concerns aren’t exclusive to wearables; they apply equally to smartphones and other technology. For most people, the benefits – helping us to understand ourselves better and bringing us information in a less distracting way – will outweigh the risks, as they have with smartphones. The technology will advance regardless and George Osborne’s wristband will seem quaint when our children are confronted by the first cyborg Chancellor.

Shane Richmond’s ebook ‘Computerised You: How Wearable Technology Will Turn Us Into Computers’ will be out as a Kindle Single next month.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
ebookAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    (Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

    Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

    £18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Real Staffing - Leeds - £18k+

    £18000 - £27000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Sales - Trainee Recruitment Co...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester - Progressive Rec.

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Progressive Recruitment are cu...

    Day In a Page

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable